When does turning in someone else’s election ballot equate to tampering?
That was the question the House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee of the Wyoming Legislature wrestled with Wednesday afternoon while discussing the topic of ballot harvesting.
“It seems like what we’re trying to get to here, is to avoid ballot tampering, ” said state Rep. Sandy Newsome, R-Cody. “The thought is that when someone brings five or 10 or 40 ballots that there’s the possibility of tampering with those ballots.”
Ballot harvesting is the act of third-parties, volunteers or workers gathering and submitting absentee ballots completed by voters rather than the voters themselves directly turning in their own ballots.
House Bill 211 would more clearly define what ballot harvesting is under Wyoming law, and increase the penalties associated with it to a felony. It would also state that ballot harvesting only occurs when a third-party individual approaches a voter offering to deliver a ballot for them, not the other way around, and that only a member of a household can deliver ballots on behalf of another of that household.
“This bill seeks to, No.1, clarify ballot harvesting on a micro scale,” bill sponsor Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne said. He sees the legislation as a proactive measure to damper fears of outside forces unfairly influencing voters.
“No. 2, this bill prohibits ballot harvesting on a macro scale. When we’re talking about companies, political parties and organizations. This is what we want to prohibit from happening in Wyoming.”
Ballot harvesting became a hot button topic following the 2020 election after many allegations of fraud surfaced, furthered by the claims of former President Donald Trump and films like “2000 Mules.”
Secretary of State Chuck Gray hosted free showings of “2000 Mules” during his campaign, a movie that relied on questionable evidence to show that ballot harvesting significantly altered the results of the 2020 election.
“I stand in total support of banning ballot harvesting,” Gray said. “Permitting ballot harvesting allows political operatives to collect and deliver an unlimited amount of absentee ballots for tabulation with no time or quantity restriction.”
Gray said the practice encourages “gamesmanship” and “coercion” of qualified electors for votes “sometimes on a massive scale.”
On Wednesday, the Corporations Committee passed legislation titled “Ballot harvesting,” which would make the aforementioned crime a felony in Wyoming.
HB 211 passed with an 8-1 vote, but not before language was removed from the bill delineating how many absentee ballots a person can deliver on behalf of other people and a requirement that any voter who has someone deliver ballots on their behalf fill out a form created by the Secretary of State.
Happening In Wyoming?
Gray ran his campaign on improving election security and integrity in Wyoming, beating his opponent in the Republican primary by more than 13,000 votes. Laura Pearson, a sheep farmer from Kemmerer, who supported Gray in his efforts to increase election security, said it is good to cope with and prepare for these kinds of problems.
“Regardless of whether this is happening in Wyoming or not, what’s to say that it won’t happen?” Pearson questioned. “Are we really going to rely on whistleblowers?
Gray’s biggest argument for taking action on ballot harvesting is to provide a proactive response to a potential problem that could affect the state in the future. Gray said he hasn’t inspected the entire repository of possible complaints made on the matter, but a public records request has been made on the matter.
“It’s about improvement in preventing something in the future, a lot of these changes,” he said. “It’s difficult to know how much is occurring and I am careful. I take a conservative approach. Just because you don’t have proof doesn’t mean nothing is happening.”
Newsome asked Gray multiple times if he believes illegal ballot harvesting is happening in Wyoming. Gray said the current state statutes on ballot harvesting are so vague it discourages members of the public from filing complaints on the activity.
“The statute doesn’t provide clarity as to what is allowed and what isn’t,” he said.
This same argument was used to justify many of Trump’s claims that the election had been rigged.
Gray mentioned how illegal activity occurs frequently without a complaint having been made. But in America, the courts typically rely on evidence, not unproven theoreticals, to render its decisions.
Relatives Or Roommates Or Caretakers?
On Wednesday, Gray recommended tightening the rules on who can deliver absentee ballots. He supported original verbiage to the bill requiring that only two people biologically related living in an individual’s household can deliver ballots on behalf of someone else.
Newsome said ballot tampering is already enforced by the county clerks who receive absentee ballots. She does not see ballot tampering as being determined by how many ballots an individual delivers.
“No matter if I bring mine, my husband’s, or 20 of my best friends’ ballots, your (clerks’) concern is that there’s no tampering with those ballots,” Newsome said, “less concern about who brought those ballots to the clerks or put them in the mail.
“I’m supposed to bring two but if I bring five, that means I’m a bad person and I’ve committed a felony?”
A few of the people who spoke against restricting who can deliver ballots mentioned nursing homes, where a staff member often delivers ballots on behalf of residents. There was also mention of a scenario that could occur on a college campus, where one household member may deliver the ballots of their roommates.
Gray countered these points, mentioning how the legislation would not impact voters’ ability to mail their absentee ballot to their county clerk.
Drop Box Ballot Boxes
One of Gray’s key campaign promises in 2022 was to ban drop box ballot boxes once taking office. There were seven Wyoming counties that used the boxes during last year’s elections.
Although HB 211 would not prohibit the ballot drop boxes, the boxes were a major part of Wednesday’s discussion as they are considered the main vehicle of ballot harvesting. If passed, the legislation would include the first ever statutory reference to ballot boxes, indirectly codifying their presence in Wyoming law.
“Whether we like it or not, Wyoming’s populace justifiably is concerned about the use and security of ballot drop boxes,” Gray said. He described this mention in the bill as a “severe miscalculation.”
Multiple individuals representing the county clerks defended their use.
“Security considerations need to be taken into account when implementing a drop box to include location, security, visibility, accessibility, availability of video surveillance, parking and drive thru options,” Mary Lankford, who represents the Wyoming County Clerks Association, said.
Fremont County Clerk Julie Freese said her county put additional requirements on their ballot drop box, with a built-in warning for users who used the box for longer than 45 seconds and a mechanism allowing Freese to remotely communicate with users of the box.